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1 REVIEWING AND EVALUATIN CDIO [CONCEIVE, DESIGN, IMPLEMENT, OPERATE]: AN EMPIRICAL APPROACH TO ENGINEERING EDUCATION CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT Paper presented at Coventry University, November 2011, Problem Based Learning Annual Conference Dr Jane Andrews, School of Engineering & Applied Science Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET [email protected] Dr Robin Clark, School of Engineering & Applied Science Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET [email protected] Dr Gareth Thompson School of Engineering & Applied Science Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET [email protected] Mr Chris Evans School of Engineering & Applied Science Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET [email protected]

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Paper presented at Coventry University, November 2011, Problem Based Learning Annual


Dr Jane Andrews,

School of Engineering & Applied Science

Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET

[email protected]

Dr Robin Clark,

School of Engineering & Applied Science

Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET

[email protected]

Dr Gareth Thompson

School of Engineering & Applied Science

Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET

[email protected]

Mr Chris Evans

School of Engineering & Applied Science

Aston University. Birmingham. UK. B4 7ET

[email protected]




This paper draws upon research conducted at Aston University which critically evaluated the

issues surrounding the introduction of CDIO across the first year undergraduate curriculum in

Mechanical Engineering and Design. From the induction of the programme, engineering

education researchers ‘shadowed’ the staff responsible for developing and introducing the

new curriculum. Utilising an Action Research Design, and adopting mixed methodological

research techniques, the researchers worked closely with the teaching team, critically

reflecting upon the issues arising in introducing CDIO into the curriculum. Drawing upon the

emergent findings of the study, the paper discusses how Problem-Based Learning, in the

shape of CDIO, can offer a viable alternative to traditional engineering education. In doing it

adds to current debates in this area by showing how an approach based upon PBL not only

enriches students’ learning experiences, but also challenges those responsible for programme

planning and delivery.


Engineering has recently received much public attention with events such as the Mexican

Gulf Oil Spillage and the Japanese Earthquake receiving worldwide press coverage, whilst

other more longstanding problems associated with sustainability, pollution and global

warming have long been on the public agenda. Based on the premise that by acting to shape

the world in a manner that benefits humanity (RA.Eng, 2010), engineering provides an

integral link between society and science. Key to this link is engineering education, which in

providing the vehicle that society uses to attract, recruit, train and professionally develop

engineers at all levels, has a vital role to play. This role is both in the future sustainability of

the profession and also in the future prosperity of our society. Yet, whilst engineers are



increasingly called upon to solve some of the world’s most complex problems, it is ironic that

in the UK in particular, the profession is experiencing significant difficulties in attract new

recruits. Although there can be no doubt that engineering offers an exciting and viable career,

the question of how to convince young people of this, and in doing so increase the numbers

of future engineers enrolling on university programmes, is something that both engineering

education and the profession have yet to address (IMechE, 2009; Spinks et. al, 2006).

The need to equip students with a broad range of technical skills, competencies and

abilities, whilst providing them with a broad theoretical grounding, and preparing them for

the workplace, means that university level engineering education is in facing something of a

trichotomous split (Lucena et al, 2008). To make matters worse, in the complex learning

environment that is today’s Higher Education Sector, many engineering programmes find

themselves having to deal with high levels of student attrition (DIUS, 2008; NSF, 2009).

Furthermore, complicated by difficulties in recruiting new students onto programmes,

problems indicative of high student ‘drop-out’ rates are augmented by public perceptions of

the profession as being one in which inequalities in gender, social class, and ethnicity are the

norm (Gill et al, 2008; NSF, 2009). Indeed, it may be argued that commonly held stereotypes

of what ‘an engineer’ is [a white, middle-class, middle aged, male] do little to help

recruitment into the profession. This means that many ‘potential future engineers’ do not

even begin to consider engineering as a career choice. Added to this is the fact the traditional

pre-requisite subjects of physics, maths and chemistry are generally not favoured by today’s

generation of 16-18 year olds (Jones et al, 2000; Dickens & Arlett, 2009) who find them

overly demanding and difficult.

If current trends of low recruitment into the profession, and high attrition rates on

engineering education programmes, continue then the outlook for engineering and

engineering education over the next two to three decades appears to be increasingly bleak. It



is clear therefore, that as a discipline, engineering and engineering education need to work

together to redress the balance. Failure to do could mean that in the relatively near future, the

UK will face unprecedented shortages of engineers (IMechE, 2009; Spinks et. el, 2006) and

engineering education in the UK could find itself struggling to survive. This could have

devastating effects for UK society as a whole.


Like the rest of the UK Higher Education Sector, engineering education is facing

unprecedented changes to the way it is financed with the coalition government drastically

cutting funding to all universities and colleges. Furthermore, government and industry

expectations that Higher Education will ‘produce’ large numbers of work-ready, flexible and

highly qualified graduates means that all educators are increasingly finding themselves

having to ‘produce more with less’. Contextualised by this highly pressured financial

environment, Aston University School of Engineering and Applied Science decided to

radically change its pedagogical approach to engineering education – introducing CDIO

(Crawley, 2002), across the first year curriculum for all Mechanical Engineering and Design

students in 2010-2011.

Identified as ‘an innovative framework for producing the next generation of

engineers’ the founding principles of CDIO are such that it encapsulates ‘... a commonly

shared premise that engineering graduates should be able to: Conceive – Design –

Implement – Operate complex value-added engineering systems in a modern team based

engineering environment to create systems and products’ (CDIO, 2011). With regards to

Aston University, CDIO enables the teaching staff to engage the students through providing a

practically relevant and academically grounded learning experience. The University website

provides students with the rationale for teaching with the CDIO approach ... “... the essence



of you becoming an engineer or designer is not only dependent on you developing technical

knowledge but also being able to combine this with practical engineering skills, social

awareness, team and project management abilities, and competencies in many other fields to

solve engineering problems” (Aston University, SEAS, 2011).

The Aston University approach to CDIO was purposefully developed to take account

of students’ learning needs in a manner that both meets industrial expectations whilst

capturing the high levels of theoretical and practical knowledge expected of a contemporary

university level engineering programme. Additionally, the curriculum was designed to

provide economically viable and practically relevant active learning experiences that would

both engage and challenge students whilst enthusing them about engineering. The module,

which is taught in a bespoke CDIO laboratory, is taught over a 9 hour period one day each

week. In addition to this students are required to dedicate a further 14 hours per week on

CDIO related activities (both practical and theoretical learning). More traditional lectures and

tutorials supplement the curriculum as appropriate to the discipline. The module is taught by

4 engineering lecturers, all of whom are highly committed and enthusiastic about the

approach. They, in turn, are supported by ‘guest’ lecturers and technical-support staff.

In order to evaluate the pedagogical effectiveness of the CDIO approach, two

independent researchers were employed to critically analyse the overall educational and

practical value that CDIO adds to the student learning experience. It is this research that

forms the basis of this paper.


Utilising mixed methodological research approaches, and following an Action Research

Design, the researchers followed the programme development and delivery right from its

onset – making a contemporaneous record of events, experiences and issues as they arose.



This paper captures the first phase [Year 1] of a longitudinal study which is aimed at

critically evaluating the CDIO approach as it is rolled out across all 4 years of the

Undergraduate Programme in Mechanical Engineering & Design. By undertaking a ‘real-

time’ analysis, the study will provide a unique record and analysis of the students’ and

faculty’s pedagogical experiences as they occur.

The first stage of the research involved non-participant observations. An

observational framework was drawn up and observations scheduled during 12 different CDIO

sessions occurring over the first two terms of 2010 / 2011. It was decided that the lead

researcher should undertake these observations as he was familiar with the engineering

context and content of the programme – and so could focus on the pedagogy and research

without being distracted.

During the middle of Term 1 a quantitative survey was administered to all students.

The response rate was 65%. The data was analysed and the findings reported directly to the

teaching team – thereby providing them with an early indication of students’ perceptions of

the approach. This meant that they were able to identify potential difficulties and deal with

them in a timely manner. Building on the findings of the observations and survey, a

qualitative questionnaire was administered at the end of the second term in April 2011.

Comprising ten ‘open’ questions, all of the students were surveyed. The response rate was



The observations provided the ideal means by which the researchers were able to gain first-

hand insight into the issues and experiences of students and staff as the CDIO approach

unfolded. The observational framework was grounded in pedagogical research and utilised an

ethnographic approach. The observational data was analysed utilising a grounded theory



approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Four distinctive concepts were identified in the analysis

of the observational data: people: pedagogy: process: and product.

The first concept ‘people’ captured staff anxieties with regards to the practicalities of

offering such an intense learning and teaching experience. These concerns were not

unfounded. Once the programme began, high levels of physical, mental and practical stress

were observed amongst the staff. The nature of the CDIO approach means that it is not an

easy option for staff. Its student focus requires those responsible for teaching to be

continually mentally astute, able to deal with students’ constant questioning and high


One of the major issues identified during the observations related to the difficulties of

‘large group’ teaching. Although the university provided a bespoke CDIO laboratory, which

was ideally suited to the practical activities, the ‘instructional’ part of the sessions provided

difficult as the acoustics in the room were not ideal. This was observed to be equally

frustrating for students and teaching staff.

The second concept ‘pedagogy’ captures the challenges of balancing the requirements

of an active learning approach with an engineering content and context. During the

observations it was noted that towards the end of Term 2 some of the staff appeared to find

the need to be constantly innovative more than a little challenging. Whilst this was overcome

by the staff working together to develop new, academically grounded and practically relevant

projects, the fact that they had to work with limited financial resources proved more than a

little frustrating at times.

A second pedagogical issue reflected difficulties with assessment and feedback. A

range of formative and summative assessment techniques were used during the module

including instant electronic feedback systems, and the keeping of individual logs. The use of

electronic feedback systems was observed to be highly successful in keeping students (and



staff) engaged. Other methods of assessment proved to be less successful. Most notably,

difficulties were observed in the provision of individual feedback. The large group size meant

that much of the feedback tended to ‘generic’ in nature identifying commonly experienced

problems and issues. Whilst this worked for most of the students, it was evident that a

minority were not able to contextualise and apply ‘group’ feedback to their own work.

A third pedagogical issue reflected students’ experiences of group work. Whilst the

majority of the groups ‘bonded’ and were observed to be cohesive and supportive in nature, a

few students failed to ‘pull their weight’ causing friction and tension within in their group.

Although group work caused some predictable difficulties, the ‘process’ of CDIO, breaking

the sessions into the four distinctive stages of Conceive, Develop, Implement and Operate

proved highly successful. The students were observed to quickly adopt, and adapt to, the

active style of learning engendered by CDIO. From an engineering perspective, each stage

was clearly distinctive, comprising separate but integrated theoretical content and practical


The final concept ‘product’ captured three separate strands linked with the

development and delivery of CDIO: resources; technology; and production. The Aston

approach has been developed at a time when the need to be ‘financially astute’ was of

paramount importance. Resources for the activities were, on the whole, locally acquired from

recycled materials. This enabled students to learn about the basics of engineering in a

practical, problem-solving yet financially shrewd way.

The second strand within the ‘product’ concept was ‘technology’. This related to the

electronic feedback system. That this was not always totally reliable caused frustration for

staff and students alike. This meant that on more than one occasion staff were required to

‘think on their feet’ and improvise. Whilst this was undoubtedly more than a little



exasperating, that students were able to witness their lecturers finding practical solutions

when the technology failed to work was an important lesson in engineering practice.

The final strand forming part of the ‘product’ concept related to ‘production’. In each

session the students were required to make something ‘real’ and then test it. This was

observed to be a successful and engaging way of learning. It enabled the students to actively

test theoretical and practical perspectives and in doing so link the two. They were observed in

their groups discussing the various options around each project – relating their choices to a

range of theories and concepts. However, on the negative side, varying levels of commitment

were observed with some students notably contributing more than others.


In administering the survey during the first term, the researchers aimed to gain insight into

the students’ previous learning experiences. In addition to providing ‘benchmarking’ data,

this meant that the programme leaders were subsequently able to adapt their approach


Likert Scales were used to gain a breadth of opinion and insight. Questions were focused

into 4 distinctive categories: Previous learning experiences: Expectations of the University

learning environment: Expectations of the ‘added value’ of University: Perceptions of the

first few weeks of participating in CDIO

The survey was developed in such a way so as to deliberately reflect the fact that around

80% of the students had entered university straight from school. It captured students’

perceptions of how useful they found previous learning approaches in preparing them

university and revealed that ‘problem-solving’ was their previous preferred learning

approach, with ‘designing things’ and ‘making things’ also popular. This finding was not

entirely unexpected given the discipline choice of the sample group. ‘Formal lessons with 21

or more students’ proved to be the least favoured approach.



Students were asked to indicate their level of agreement in respect of the types of

learning approaches they expected to experience at university. The study revealed that the

students’ least expected ‘essay type’ assignments. This finding possibly reflects typical pre-

university education where ‘long’ essays are not generally part of the curriculum (particularly

in the sciences). The vast majority of students in the sample were, more or less, completely

new to engineering, with their previous exposure being limited to participation in

competitions, or to familial linkages (usually fathers, grandfathers, brothers or uncles who are


Students were then asked about their expectations of how university would prepare

them for employment. Not surprisingly given the high costs of higher education, the study

revealed that the students had high expectations that the programme would prepare them for

the ‘world of work’. In many respects, this in itself highlights the importance of CDIO in that

it promotes employability by giving students ‘real-life’ skills and experiences.

The final part of the survey looked specifically at the students’ perceptions of

participating in CDIO. The value of CDIO in helping students’ link engineering practice to

theory, and theory to practice was evident in the study findings. Likewise, its value in

promoting team-working, independent thinking and problem solving were all indicated in the


The questions in the qualitative questionnaire provided the students with the

opportunity to give their views in a more open manner than afforded by the earlier

quantitative survey. The questions focused on the students’ perceptions of CDIO as a learning

approach and covered all aspects of the learning experience. Typically, most of the responses

took the format of a single sentence.




The emergent findings from this study suggest that the engineering students entering

undergraduate programmes prefer ‘hands on / problem-based’ approaches to learning. It also

reinforces previous study findings which argue that on the whole, students prefer working in

small groups rather attended large lectures. The CDIO approach allows teaching staff to

capitalize on such preferences, and in doing so make the most of students’ natural

predispositions towards ‘practical’ learning. By providing an active, problem-based, learning

environment in which theory can linked to practice in a realistic and understandable manner,

CDIO enables students to experience a range of engineering problems in a ‘safe’ and

‘controlled’ environment. Indeed, there can be little argument that CDIO provides students

with the opportunity to develop high level engineering specific skills and also offer them the

means by which they are able to acquire ‘softer’ transferable competencies such as team-

working. In this manner the PBL nature of CDIO is crucial to promoting the students

employability and employment prospects.

From an educational management perspective, it would appear that the problem-based

nature of the CDIO approach has provided the means by which the university has begun to

address issues of retention in engineering education. By providing a positive and exciting

learning environment the ‘drop out’ rate has decreased from an average of 10% of the cohort

for each of the preceding three years (from the academic year 2006/ 07 through to 2009/ 10),

to 2% of the cohort so far this year.

In conclusion, it should be noted that CDIO does not provide an easy option. For the

staff, the academic and theoretical practicalities associated with offering such an intense

learning experience can prove demanding. Whilst for students, CDIO provides an innovative

way of learning that does much to prepare them for their future careers. What is clear is that

the next four years will be both exciting and challenging for both staff and students alike.




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